Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Stonewall years: a dose of Real Life, gay style, from Edmund White

Some books you just have to read, to be able to understand and appreciate them, and The Beautiful Room In Empty falls on this list. I could tell you what it's about (and will!) and for the majority of the plot you'd probably say, "So what?" Because this book is about life-as-it-is ... not as we wish it were. (The ending is a different matter -- I'm getting there, stay with me.)

If there are two writers who are absolutely diametrically opposed to each other, it would have to be Edmund White and Mel Keegan. White most often writes in autobiographical style, and so many of his works explore (in some way, even if it's through the medium of another character, not himself) who he is, what he is, what made him so, where he's been, where he's going.

Edmund White revels in the day to day business of being. (Meanwhile, Keegan confesses flat-out, without even being jabbed with a sharp stick, that every MK book is pure escapism -- Keegan is bored by everyday life and writes SF, fantasy, historicals, to opt out of the daily grind ... and the novels are always fun.)

Beautiful Room... is the middle book of a trilogy. I never did read the first volume (A Boy's Own Story), because to be utterly frank, I'm not interested enough in children to tackle a whole book about them. Any kind of children. A boy's eight or nine and starting to mature gay? Great -- he'll get interesting enough to read about in another ten years or so! I started with Beautiful... and I did get, and read, the third book, The Farewell Symphony, but I won't be able to review this. I lent it out and didn't get it back, and haven't read the book in about 20 years. I remember that it was good, but I need to replace it. (Something else I'll do when I get the proverbial Round Tuit. I'm not quite the last of the procrastinators, but ... I came in second.)

Beautiful... is suspended somewhere between novel and autobiography. If you were just handed the text to read, without blurbs and promos, you'd take it for a real autobiography. It's so skillfully handled and so real that "Bunny" (the narrator; what the heck is that short for?!) could easily have been Edmund White himself.

There's no element of the fantastic, nothing of the adventure or the violent or the outrageous. No punchups or battles, much less swordfights, plane crashes, gunfights, lost artifacts, treasure to hunt, mysteries to solve, murders to investigate, drugs changing hands, car chases --

All the elements that make novels "go" from the mysteries (like the Adrien English books by Josh Lanyon), to the gay science fiction works (by writers like Constantine, McHugh and our own Keegan), are totally absent.

In the hands of any other writer I can think of, The Beautiful Room is Empty would have turned into wall-to-wall soap opera! It didn't -- and nor did Edmund White let it slither down the greasy, slippery slope at the bottom of which are books like Jackal in the Dark (which in itself is a great book -- just a mile away from White's writing.)

It's some element in the writing style that stops the book morphing into something along the lines of Gordon Merrick. (I'll be getting around to Merrick later in the year ... bear with me). Where Merrick revels in the sort of plots that wouldn't be a whisker out of place on The Bold and the Beautiful, and The Young and the Restless, White rises above the swamp and takes material that's perilously close to far greater heights than soaps ever aspired to.

His writing is often almost metaphorical or allegorical. He seems to see through what you can perceive with your eyes, to some "reality" behind the mask of what we think of as being real. It's all very Jungian! As I began -- some books, you have to read in order to understand and appreciate, because if I give you the basic plot line, at its simplest, you really will say, "so what" --! And you'd be dead wrong in that conclusion.

Beautiful... is moving, and exquisite -- and I think it's also become a historical. It's set in the 1960s, ending with the Stonewall "uprising."

Personally, I have no memories of Stonewall. I was about seven at the time, and in Australia we didn't get a lot of American news. Even if we did, at the time, Stonewall would've been reported down here as "civil disobedience," just a bunch of people rioting against the authorities! (Yes, I know how horrible that sounds! But think: if the American authorities had to be rioted against before they'd change, why should the authorities 10,000 miles away side with the rioters against their opposite numbers? The truth took months, closer to years, to percolate out this far, and by then there were bigger local stories to overpower the news ... Vietnam ends and our soldiers come home, Cyclone Tracy destroys Darwin, the Federal Government gets sacked, the monstrous bushfires...)

So, the Stonewall scenes at the end are quite an experience, and I can honestly say I learned a lot. There was a sense of "unreality" about them, because I read the book in about 1988, when things had gotten much better for the GLBTI community, and reading this, one was stunned by the fact that something like Stonewall could and did happen.

This is also a "coming out" story, which makes it not my usual fare -- yet I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Why? Because it's done so well, and because it's a historical. Moreover, it's a 1960s book that was written by one who was there at the time. If a contemporary writer were to write about the period, anything s/he wrote would be "tinted" by the next forty years. Like a Hollywood movie that's made now and set in 1944, it'd look and feel different from a movie that was made in '44 ... and I don't just mean the difference in movie technology!

The Beautiful Room is Empty is about life, being young and gay in a culture that stigmatizes you, finding your courage, deciding to be what you are -- and then stand up for what you believe in. There's a lot we can still learn from books like this, because the struggle for equal rights isn't over yet for the GLBTI community in the States, Australia and other First World countries. And even when it's been won in these countries, many other nations are lagging a long way behind, so the struggle will go on for decades.

Wholeheartedly recommended. AG's rating: 4.5 stars out of 5. The book has been done in many editions. The one I have is the mass market paperback with the nighttime street scene in garish colors on the cover. Amazon has good deals at this time ... you can get very cheap used ones, but in the interests of propping up the ailing industry, I urge you to pay a few bucks and get a new one! Remember that buying a copy for 10c doesn't do anybody any good really (except the post office, which charged the full whack for delivering it).